Former NFL linebacker George Koonce knows about the difficulties of transitioning away from a professional football career as well as anyone.
After his nine-year career with the Packers and Seahawks came to an end, Koonce found himself without much of an idea of what to do next. He spent two years waiting for a team to call, filling the time by drinking too much and, once the realization that the phone wouldn’t ring set in, a suicide attempt in 2003. That served as a wake-up call for Koonce, who went back to school and wound up becoming athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Koonce quit that job in 2010 after his wife died of breast cancer and decided to go after a doctorate in philosophy at Marquette. The subject of his dissertation is the issues that football players face as they move into retirement. Koonce steers clear of blaming the NFL or NFLPA for not doing enough by spreading the responsibility to everyone from coaches (college and pro), administrators and the players themselves. Koonce believes players must be more proactive, both in terms of asking for help and seeking relationships that will benefit them after they are done playing.
“You have a chance to interface with some of the top, most influential people in that state, in that community,” Koonce said to the Associated Press. “But if you’re so engulfed in playing the sport that you’re playing, it really doesn’t make any different. There are opportunities that are going to pass you by that you really didn’t embrace when you were on that campus or when you were in the NFL. You’re so engulfed in the next play, the next quarter, the next half, the next game, the next season.”
Koonce handed in his dissertation on the same day that Junior Seau killed himself, an event that underscores the value in paying attention to what happens to players when they leave the field of play.